The Bollywood flick, Padmaavat, has irked many, particularly those having even a nodding acquaintance with the history of the subcontinent. A friend jestingly remarked that Padmaavat has attracted as many critics as cinema goers. The fact remains that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s endeavour is a brazen and bizarre way of fictionalising history that serves only some vested interests.
Alauddin Khilji, a medieval king, obviously a historical character, was negatively portrayed vis a vis the fictional character of Rani Padmaavati who epitomised ‘goodness’ in the film. Such juxtaposition, of goodness of a fictional figure who happened to be Hindu against the diabolically evil characterised in a historical personality who was a Muslim, has stirred up controversy in India as well as in Pakistan. Ironically, the fictional character holds precedence over the historical figure in a fight between good and evil.
Thus, it was at best an effort to plead de-historicising of the past. Historians are readily picking holes in the story-line of the film which they claim is riddled with factual flaws. Obviously, making of such a film is a big source of embarrassment for historians in India who have tried to build a narrative of composite India since the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru and on compelling grounds. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has gone on to promote a narrative which is likely to crystalise communal fissures in a society, already reeling under the mounting pressure of communal animosity.
Of course Alauddin Khilji was ruthless and cunning like Machiavelli’s Prince but not a maniac as portrayed in Padmaavat. Nor was he was religiously disposed, advancing the cause of Muslims or Islam. Showing his army saying namaz in congregation in the film seemed absolutely far-fetched and incongruent with historical facts. Then, the composition of the Khilji army could not be religiously homogeneous in a manner it is represented in the film. The construction of the binary opposite on communal lines has a clear resonance with Hindutva ideology and contravenes, in absolute sense, the plurality of socio-cultural ethos which has so far been projected by Indian historians.
Historians of medieval India will agree with the assertion that Alauddin Khilji was one of four ablest rulers that medieval India had seen, Shamasuddin Iltutmish, Ghiyas ud Din Balban, Jalal ud Din Akbar being the other three. Containment of Mongol menace from the North West, establishing peace and order in Northern India, subjecting the army under the central command for the first time in India and introduction of an economic system by streamlining the revenue accruing from agriculture were the salient planks of Alauddin’s administrative system. All these reforms from their conception to execution must have kept him so pre-occupied, leaving no time to camp outside Mewar with his army just in pursuit of love for Rani Padmaavati.
The pragmatic ruler as Alaudin is known to historians, such an undertaking appears to be nothing but a mere figment of imagination. Showing him as an avaricious clown, completely devoid of any sophistication, reflecting in the way he ate, drank and carried himself amounts to inverting the characterisation of Alauddin provided and substantiated by established historians of Allahabad and Aligarh.
The way Malik Kafur is depicted is lamentable in the extreme. His is the grossest misrepresentation of all characters in the film. In history books, Kafur comes across as an economic genius of medieval times whose policies had far-reaching impact. Subsequent economic planners had to take his planning into consideration while devising their policy. But, in the movie, the character of Kafur was trivialised into a debauch and treacherous eunuch personifying Lucifer, who was complicit in crime with Alauddin.
I am really interested in reading a detailed take on the movie Padmaavat by historians of the caliber of Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia. Their analytical feedback may have a containing effect on the damage that the film is doing to the general perception of history.
In a disclaimer before the start of the movie, it is claimed the production team does mean to hurt the feelings of any religious community. What it means is that the viewers should treat the film as an entertainment venture which is fictional in essence. But the point is that the fictionalised content is set in a historical context. Thus by putting up that disclaimer, the audience is alerted to the display of travesty done to historical characters.
But the noteworthy point is the narrative which has been conjured up throughout the film and the impact it is likely to have on popular perception about the Muslim rule in India. I wonder if a communally charged social formation like India can afford a film with such fissiparous content being screened in its cinemas.
Unless there is another film that provides a counter-narrative which is the need of the hour, the role of Muslims in Indian history would be that of a stock of people who were alien, uncouth, anti-Hindu and generally brutal. In the past, Pakistani movies like Gharnata, Taj Mahal, Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali were made which did not go unnoticed. One may assert that this trend ought to be revived as movies are the most potent and effective source not only of creation but peddling of the historical narrative. One must bear in mind that a particular way of narrating historical events casts profound influence on perceptions formed in the present.